If a person has a problem with Rep. Tony Randolph based on the color of his skin, he'd rather address it person-to-person and then move on.
Randolph, a Republican from Rapid City and the only Black South Dakota legislator, said he views the world through the word of God, not the color of his skin, and discussions about race seem "shallow" to him because what is in a person's heart is what matters.
Not all the Minneapolis police officers arrested in George Floyd's death in May were Caucasian, he said, and he's skeptical about the nationwide allegations of systemic racism. The video of Floyd's death was "horrendous" and Floyd shouldn't have died for his actions, but the violent protests that followed aren't about Floyd's death, he said.
"That is not about racism. If they were actually wanting to make a difference and model Dr. Martin Luther King, then there would be no violence," he said.
When asked by the Argus Leader, South Dakota legislators of color had varying reactions to the events unfolding in the past several weeks across the country, the existence of racism in South Dakota, and what the path forward looks like.
Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said he has struggled with the issue over the last few weeks because he was disappointed at the violence that followed Floyd's death. It's not enough to be outraged, people have to do something about it, he said.
It needs to go beyond saying that racism is bad, he said. South Dakotans need to consider what it means to have racism in the state and the policies and opportunities that contribute to it. Residents also need to acknowledge the history of South Dakota, especially as it pertains to Native Americans, he said.
"We cannot continue to ignore the fact that there is racism and prejudice in this state," Heinert said.
Sen. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge, called for changes in the wake of Floyd's death. Calling this "a pivotal and powerful moment of time," she said she supported Native Americans joining the Black community to condemn the deaths of Floyd and all other victims of systemic racism.
"Collectively we have the opportunity to rise out of the ashes to create a just and equitable world based on love, respect, social and racial justice," she said.
Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, said similar issues are seen with her tribe's law enforcement on her reservation so an officer's actions aren't always race related, but at the same time, there is an understanding about where the issue originated nationally. St. John, a historian, said anyone who looks at crime in her tribe's history would say it's unjust.
"Justice reform is huge. Can we do we better? Absolutely we can do better," she said.
What happened to Floyd and other victims like him is "unacceptable" and the question is how to change it, she said. The right to protest is important and, historically, protests have produced change, including women's suffrage and civil rights. That gives her a reason to believe that more change is possible.
'A condition of the heart'
Randolph is a strong believer in personal responsibility and believes that issues over race should be dealt with between the two people. If a community deems racism to be a serious issue, it should be addressed within that community rather than in protests in other cities, he said. He believes people who look for systemic racism create it and if they stop looking for it, the issue will go away. The longer there's "loud cries of national racism, systemic racism," the longer it continues, he said.
He said he doesn't know if he's ever experienced racism in South Dakota and if he did, he wasn't looking for it, he said.
“Racism really has nothing to do with the color of your skin, but it's a condition of the heart and that's it.”
"More than likely there's a good chance there's racism going on, but the great chance of that is because we've got humans living here. Racism really has nothing to do with the color of your skin, but it's a condition of the heart and that's it," he said.
The U.S. Constitution says that all men are created equal and slavery would have inevitably ended because of that, he said. For people to take advantage of the liberties granted to them, they have be willing to stand on their own two feet and operate by those documents, he said.
He believes that the Constitution's statement that all men are created equal is divinely inspired.
"Any Christian who claims racism is taking their eyes off the Bible, off the word of God," he said.
More education needed
Randolph said he doesn't feel singled out as the only Black legislator at the Capitol. But for Heinert, there isn't enough discussion at the Capitol about issues disproportionately affecting people of color.
"We could do better," Heinert said.
Heinert said he hears about issues related to race daily in his legislative district, which includes the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and other legislators may not hear about those issues. He said he needs to do a better job of educating other legislators about it.
Foster said she believes discussions are slowly increasing at the Capitol about issues faced by people of color, especially with Native American legislators who can represent those issues in Pierre.
"I believe people are receptive and it's a matter that they don't know unless they live by a Native community. A lot of this information is so foreign and it's a matter of enlightening, educating, working together," she said.
Heinert agrees that most legislators view it as an important topic, but there's a lack of understanding about the history of prejudice and racism in South Dakota. State officials don't want to have that conversation because it's "a tough conversation" to have and a lot of people instead revert to the same positions as the assimilation policies put in place to deal with Native Americans and communities of color in South Dakota.
"I think South Dakota should have a stronger response and we should be able to have an honest conversation about race in this state," he said. "We need to acknowledge all communities of color. How do we go forward? We can't do that without dominant society being part of that conversation."
Heinert said he doesn't know how state leaders can't have that conversation given what has gone on across the country in the past month. The protests have been years in the making and people need to recognize why they are happening, he said.
"If we don't listen, this is what happens and we haven't been listening for a long time," he said.
St. John said she's heard comments by law enforcement and legislators during the legislative session that were respectful and showed an understanding about the issues impacting Native Americans. Of particular note, she heard the late Huron Rep. Bob Glanzer discuss Native American youth as equals to youth of other races.
"It was so awesome to me that I remember leaving and telling people when I got back home that we have legislators like that," she said.
Law enforcement changes
Many of the legislators said they support law enforcement and it's only a fraction of officers that cause problems, but there could be tweaks made in the state to improve the situation.
"I'm sure I'm not alone in the expectation that we will be looking at how we can make some big changes in the upcoming year," St. John said.
A video provoked outrage last year where an officer in Rapid City used what some viewed as excessive force in separating two Native American middle schoolers and Foster said they still haven't heard a statement from that officer about it. Discussions in the state need to prioritize deescalation and they need to work together to improve responses, she said.
St. John pointed out that law enforcement in her area is already short staffed with a lot of ground to cover, which is similar to other reservations, and there's never been a discussion about doing it with less money. But how that money is spent could be examined, she said.
St. John pointed out that some types of force such as pepper spray and tear gas aren't allowed to be used by the military in war, but can be used by law enforcement. It's important to note that sometimes law enforcement isn't carrying out their own wishes, but are following state and federal laws and that's where potential changes could be made, she said.
There's ongoing conversations at the Capitol about justice reform, prisons and the state's ingestion law, she said. They could also consider policies in terms of training, accountability and ensuring that law enforcement can address a fellow officer if they believe the officer's actions are a danger to the community, she said.
Legislators are undertaking an interim study on mental health resources in South Dakota and Foster said she's looking forward to learning about the intersections between Native Americans, mental health and law enforcement.
"If someone's having a mental health issue, the way that they're approached can definitely dictate the outcome. Who is making that contact and how are they trained and is it focused on deescalating?" she said.